Courtier Geoffrey Chaucer served England’s King Richard II as his Controller of Customs, Justice of Peace, and Clerk of the King’s Work between 1387 and 1400. In his spare time he penned his classic, The Canterbury Tales.
The 24 stories of the Tales begin with the Middle English prologue, “Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote, The droghte of March hath perced to the roote.” which translates into “When April with its sweet-smelling showers, Has pierced the drought of March to the root.” The lines have much meaning to me as twice a year, usually in April and October I would make the pilgrimage to Canterbury accompanied by my brother Steve and, on occasion, Jay Sonneborn, Charlie Adams, or Shawn Carpenter. Our journey was not to Canterbury Cathedral to visit the shrine of the martyred Saint Thomas à Becket, but rather the more prosaic town of Canterbury, New Hampshire to spend the day with my boyhood shooting hero and later mentor Art Jackson.
I became interested in competitive shooting though my brother’s member ship on the high school rifle team. He would often bring home the team’s copy of The American Rifleman. Jackson seemed to be on every important team and winning rifle matches as fast as he could enter them. The magazine’s pictures showed a handsome young man who was tall, spare, and wearing either the uniform of the United States Air Force or a natty blazer with the shield of the United States Shooting Team embroidered on the breast pocket. He soon became my shooting hero.
Our first to Camp Perry was 1975 and Steve and I shared a hut with the Walt and Greg Tomsen who I knew were friends of Jackson. A couple of days into the match I was alone in our hut when the screen door creaked open and a tall, distinguished man with a head of gray hair, politely asked if this was the hut where the Tomsens were billeted. It was the real Art Jackson. I was speechless. Walt and Greg soon walked in and introductions were made all around. I had spent 20 years waiting to meet Jackson and have spent the ensuing years listening and learning from him.
Art was a transitional figure in United States international shooting, bridging the pre-World War II era with the post war period. His remarkable 60 year career started in 1932 on the Brooklyn, New York, Technical High School rifle team and went in to encompass numerous National Matches including winning the 1952 Presidents Hundred, NRA Championships, a passel of World Championship titles, three Olympics with a Bronze Medal, and closed out with appearances on United States Palma Teams into the early 1990s. There was a two decade break in his competitive shooting when, employed in some aspect of photography by the Central Intelligence Agency, he was abroad, mostly in the Far East. We talked cameras and photography often, his knowledge was encyclopedic, but I was never able to wheedle out of him what exactly he did for the CIA.
We shared many common interests and experiences. We were both born in Brooklyn, married late, have daughters named Sarah Marie, and a passion for the shooting sports. I was most fortunate to be able to tap his firsthand knowledge of the great shooters of his time. He was coached in kneeling by Morris Fisher, was acquainted with the great barrel maker Harry Pope, shot with three great riflemen named Bill, Woodring, Brophy, and Schweitzer, and on it went, a litany of all of the great shooters of smallbore’s Golden Age.
In my day there were no yellow school busses in my town but there was a public bus service. New London’s grammar schools were located within walking distance but when one moved to the junior or senior high school the kids who were too far from school to walk used city busses. We purchased discount tickets and adhered to the rigid schedule. It was a simpler time, and we attracted no attention on the occasions when we carried our cased rifle to school for practice. When Steve and I mentioned this to Art he smiled and said it was much the same for him and his teammates.
Times were hard during the Great Depression when Art was in high school and extra equipment, like rifle cases, were an unaffordable extravagance when measured against ammunition and targets. When traveling to an away match the Brooklyn Tech team simply removed the rifles’ bolts and toted the school’s four uncovered Winchester 52s and a Springfield Mark I via bus and subway. The sight of a quartet of high school boys sitting on the El, swaying and lurching from side to side with the car’s motion, rifles held vertically between their legs never seemed to excite comment or caused alarm among their fellow passengers.
Art said he was questioned only once about carrying his uncased rifle. Late one afternoon he was returning from a match in lower Manhattan and, lacking carfare, was walking the four or five miles back to his home to Brooklyn. About halfway across the Manhattan Bridge he noticed a police car shadowing him. The police officer parked on the roadway, got out of his car, carefully crossed over the electrified third rail, jumped the barrier fence and waited for him on the pathway.
In reply to the officer’s inquiry about his situation Art told him where he had been and where he was going via Shank’s Mare with a rifle slung over his shoulder. “No problem” was the reply and the policeman returned to his car. The times were such that Art feels if there were a convenient subway station the police officer probably would have advanced him the nickel fare.
This encounter speaks of a more civilized and tolerant New York City, one that no longer exists, and few can, unfortunately, remember.